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Calvinism on the Cross of Christ: The Good News of Particular Atonement

“It is Calvinism that understands the Scriptures in their natural, one would have thought, inescapable meaning; Calvinism that keeps to what they actually say; Calvinism that insists on taking seriously the biblical assertions that God saves, and that He saves those whom He has chosen to save, and that He saves them by grace without works, so that no man may boast, and that Christ is given to them as a perfect Saviour, and that their whole salvation flows to them from the Cross, and that the work of redeeming them was finished on the Cross. It is Calvinism that gives due honour to the Cross.”-J.I. Packer1

In this article, I want to resurrect the challenge offered by Stephen Sutherland in one of Conciliar Post’s earliest articles to grow to understand the “substantive differences that make one confession different than another.” “If theology,” Sutherland argued, “is not merely an abstract intellectual system, but is instead the attempt to understand who our God is and what He requires of us, then we cannot downplay our convictions for one moment.”2 Thus, a step towards church unity will necessitate wrestling with the beliefs and practices that most divide Christian traditions.

To that end, I hope to elucidate and argue for one of the most contentious of Calvinist doctrines, the belief that Christ secured the redemption of the elect in his death on the cross, rather than providing for a universal, potential atonement for every person. Moreover, I want to argue, along with Anglican Reformed theologian J.I. Packer, that this debate is significant, getting to the heart of “substantive differences” in various traditions’ worship and understanding of the gospel.

In many discussions surrounding the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross, there is usually a lot of argument about the extent (how many Christ died for) rather than the intent of Christ’s death. The conversations tend to result in scripture being thrown around as to whether Christ died for “all” (1 Tim. 2:6) or whether merely for “his sheep” (John 10:11). This way of framing the conversation assumes that the intent of Christ’s death is the same whether he died for each and every person (Catholic/Orthodox/Arminian) or for merely for the “elect” (Calvinist).3

However, John Owen, the great 17th century Puritan theologian, in his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, seeks to understand the intent of Christ’s atoning work which then results in understanding the extent for which Christ’s redemptive work is extended. Surveying the biblical evidence, Owen understands what is “accomplished and fulfilled by the death [of Christ]” as:

  1. “Reconciliation with God, by removing and slaying the enmity that was between him and us” (“When we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son,” Rom. 5:10)
  2. “Justification, by taking away the guilt of sins, procuring remission and pardon of them, redeeming us from their power, with the curse and wrath due unto us for them” (“by his own blood he entered into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us,” Heb. 9:12)
  3. “Sanctification, by the purging away of the uncleanness and pollution of our sins, renewing in us the image of God, and supplying us with the graces of the Spirit of holiness” (“The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself to God, purgeth our consciences from dead works that we may serve the living God,” Heb. 9:14)
  4. “Adoption, with that evangelical liberty and all those glorious privileges which appertain to the sons of God” (“God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons,” Gal. 4:4-5)
  5. “Neither do the effects of the death of Christ rest here; they leave us not until we are settled in heaven, in glory and immortality for ever” (“And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance,” Heb. 9:15)

Owen concludes from these five glorious accomplishments of the death of Christ, “The sum of all is,—The death and blood-shedding of Jesus Christ hath wrought, and doth effectually procure, for all those that are concerned in it, eternal redemption, consisting in grace here and glory hereafter.”4

Now, there are many who are not persuaded of this truth. The majority of Christendom—Catholic, Orthodox, and Arminian—is persuaded that Christ died for every person, intending for the redemption of every person. Owen responds in a piercing critique of the logical result of this position, for the Catholic/Orthodox/Arminian is thus committed to either:

  1. Universalism is true, every person will ultimately be saved. Or,
  2. “God and Christ failed of their end proposed, and did not accomplish that which they intended, the death of Christ being not a fitly-proportioned means for the attaining of that end (for any cause of failing cannot be assigned); which to assert seems to us blasphemously injurious to the wisdom, power, and perfection of God, as likewise derogatory to the worth and value of the death of Christ” (my emphasis) 5

Unlikely to conclude either that universalism is true or that God and Christ failed in their intention to redeem humanity, Owen argues that the Catholic/Orthodox/Arminian must respond with the following proposition, that God neither intended nor effected anything in Christ’s death. Salvation is not procured by the death of Christ, but rather a general potentiality for salvation is created. In order for the potentiality to be actualized, “an act of some, not procured for them by Christ, (for if it were, why have they it not all alike?),” 6 namely faith, must be exercised by the individual. What distinguishes the saved from the unsaved, the Christian from the non-Christian, those who make use of Christ’s blood vs. those that waste it, is predicated on the “deliberative act,” as Benjamin Winter of this blog writes, of faith on the part of the believer. If what distinguishes me as a justified/sanctified/glorified person is an act of faith of myself and not the act of Christ’s atoning death to secure that faith for me, I see this as a potential for pride in the heart of the Christian, rather than an opportunity for worship (more on this later),

One can see a steaming Owen sitting behind his desk in frustration in the logical results of the Catholic/Orthodox/Arminian position with his pen and paper writing, “Now, this seeming to me to enervate the virtue, value, fruits and effects of the satisfaction and death of Christ,—serving, besides, for a basis and foundation to a dangerous, uncomfortable, erroneous persuasion—I shall, by the Lord’s assistance, declare what the Scripture holds out.” (As a brief aside, if you want to read a theological work with a number of rhetorical flourishes against the opposition, Owen’s Death of Death is a scream.)

Unsatisfied with the intent of the death of Christ under the Catholic/Orthodox/Arminian paradigm, Owen’s dense and thorough (albeit cumbersome) theological treatise continues with no less than sixteen arguments against what he calls “the universality of redemption.” Below are six of what I find are the most persuasive:

  1. The Scriptures repeatedly distinguish humanity into two sorts of conditions, and Christ is said to die particularly for the first set and not the second. Those whom He “loves” vs. those whom he “hates” (Rom. 9:13), those who are his “sheep” vs. those who are not his sheep (John 10:14), those whom he “foreknew” vs. those who he “knows not” (Rom. 8:29, Matt. 25:12), those whom God has mercy vs. those he hardens (Rom. 9:18), those who were chosen before the foundation of the world vs. those that weren’t (Eph. 1:4), sheep vs. goats (Matt. 25:32), those who were predestined, foreknown, called, justified and glorified vs. those that are not (Rom. 8:28-30). Christ is then said to die for the first of these conditions. “He will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15), “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28), “He who did not spare his Son but gave them up for us all…Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Rom. 8:32-34), and on and on. Owen probes the biblical evidence, asking that if the Scriptures distinguish humanity between two sorts of conditions, and say that Christ died for the first set of conditions, is not this the same as saying Christ died for the elect only?7
  2. Jeremiah 31:33 prophecies of a New Covenant that is to come, “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Owen, “The condition of the covenant is not said to be required, but is absolutely promised….But thus, as is apparent, it is not with all; for all men have not faith.”8
  3. If God wanted every person to come to faith in Christ so as to be saved, why would God not give them an opportunity to respond in faith? For as Paul says, “for faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17), why would God not let them hear? Owen writes thus, “this good-will of God, and this purchase made by Jesus Christ, is plainly in vain.”9
  4. The burden of proof is on those who assert that Christ died a universal death. For “the Scripture nowhere saith Christ died for all men, much less for every man…It is true, Christ is said to give his life “a ransom for all,” but nowhere for all men. And because it is affirmed expressly in other places that he died for many, for his church, for them that believe, for the children that God gave him…it must be clearly proved that where all is mentioned, it cannot be taken for all believers, all his elect, his whole church, all the children that God gave him, some of all sorts, before a universal affirmative can be thence concluded.”10
  5. If Christ died a propitiating death for every person, what about those already in hell, “shall we suppose that Christ would make himself an offering for their sins whom he knew to be past recovery, and that it was utterly impossible that ever they should have any fruit or benefit by his offering? Did God send his Son, did Christ come to die, for Cain and Pharaoh, damned so many ages before his suffering?”11
  6. Israel in the scriptures is seen as a type of the church to come in the New Covenant. Thus, “their priests, altar, sacrifices, were but all shadows of the good things to come in Jesus Christ.” It is absurd, Owen argues, for Israel to be seen as the type of all of humanity. For Israel was portioned out from all of humanity to be God’s people and to have their sins atoned for through various sacrifices, why should any more than God’s elect in the New Covenant be given the benefits of Christ’s atoning sacrifice? Owen asks probingly, “Were the Jews and their ordinances types to the seven nations whom they destroyed and supplanted in Canaan? Were they so to Egyptians, infidels, and haters of God and his Christ?”12

Without spending too much time getting into all of Owen’s engagement with various counterarguments (for this goes beyond the intentions of this article), I will merely mention a couple of Owen’s responses. First, the words “world” and “all” in the Scriptures have numerous meanings in the Scriptures, rarely signifying each and every person, and not pertaining to each and every person in the certain texts used to prove universal redemption (John 3:16 etc.). Second, Owen spills a lot of ink dealing with various proof texts for universal redemption (1 Tim. 2:4,6, 2 Peter 3:9, etc.) and finds them wanting, claiming that the verses utilized to argue for a universal redemption position do not refer to the redemption of each and every person. If anyone is interested, I’d love to further engage with the particulars of Owen’s exegesis of various texts if you’d like below in the comments section.

Now, many may say that this theological debate of the intent and the extent of Christ’s death is splitting theological hairs, while also creating division where it is unnecessary. Going along with Sutherland above, however, I believe this is a “substantive difference” that affects both our understanding of the gospel and the worship of the God who redeems.

In his 1959 introduction to Owen’s work, J.I. Packer argues that the Calvinist and the non-Calvinist have two different understandings of the gospel that stand in opposition to one another. While I do not share Packer’s insistence that Calvinism represents a “recovery of the gospel,” implying that non-Calvinists do not have the gospel at all, I do share his conviction that Calvinism, and the doctrine of particular atonement within it, best portrays the biblical and liturgical reality that “God saves sinners.”13

Calvinists and non-Calvinists, Packer argues, have different understandings of key biblical terms. “Election” for Calvinists is understood as God’s “choice of particular undeserving persons to be saved from sin and brought to glory”14, the non-Calvinist understands her faith as what brings her into the classification of elect. “Redemption” for Calvinists is understood “as Christ’s actual substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners, through which God was reconciled to them,” whereas non-Calvinists can only see the cross as offering the potentiality for salvation, though not “ensuring that anyone would ever accept it.” The work of the Holy Spirit for Calvinists is seen as bringing the “dead” to life (Eph. 2) and “taking away their heart of stone, and giving them a heart of flesh” (Ez. 36:26), the non-Calvinist’s Holy Spirit does not ensure that any actually come to Christ.

What results from this depth of understanding of our sinfulness and the great lengths God has gone to in order to plan, secure, and bring us unto salvation is a richer worship of the Triune God. Far from the “frozen chosen” stereotype of the Calvinist believer, these doctrines of predestination, particular atonement, and effectual calling should call the Christian into rich praise. What a great God who would see me in my utterly helpless state and would bring me from death to life! May we proclaim with the great hymn, “And Can It Be,”15</sup

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me who caused His pain!
For me who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be That
Thou, my God, should die for me?

He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace!
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!>16

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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